The Barnes & Noble Review
The storytelling dream team behind the haunting 1984 bestseller The Talisman has returned with a haunting sequel that is more daring and much more twisted than its predecessor. In Black House, Jack Sawyer, the sensitive boy-hero who journeyed to an alternate reality in search of a magical talisman to save his dying mother, has grown up. Now in his 30s, Jack remembers nothing of his strange adventures in the Oz-like world known as the Territories, until a series of strange events forces him to confront the snarling horrors of the past.
Someone is murdering children and dismembering their bodies in the cold shadows of Tamarack, Wisconsin. Locals call the madman the Fisherman. Some believe he is the reincarnation of an early-20th-century serial killer named Albert Fish. Others believe he is just a crazed copycat. A burned-out L.A. homicide detective, Jack has retired to this once-quiet town to get away from such insanity. He wants absolutely nothing to do with the case. Even his friend, local police chief Dale Gilbertson, can't convince him to join the investigation. But soon after the first murder, bizarre waking dreams start scratching at Jack's mind like a murderer tapping at a kitchen window -- dreams of a dead man and of red feathers and robins' eggs. The dreams eventually grab Jack by the neck and lead him to an abandoned house on the outskirts of town -- a black house that holds unspeakable evil....
Like fine tailors, King and Straub weave their distinct voices together to create an almost seamless (there are some threads that need clipping, and the legs could be taken up an inch or two) tale of suspense. Though Black House takes some time to warm up, the narrative eventually builds with a slow, seductive momentum that explodes like firecrackers in a beer can when Jack finds himself back in the Territories. Rich in detail (sometimes to a fault), cinematic in its scope, and populated with a wide array of freaky and endearing characters, Black House, though perhaps not King and Straub's best work, is a wild, fantastical romp with the macabre. Just don't turn off the lights. (Stephen Bloom)
Washington Post Book World
Two master craftsmen, each at the top of his game. Hugely pleasurable.
The most recent collaboration of King and Straub follows Jack Sawyer (middle-aged hero of The Talisman) as he reluctantly joins the search for a child murderer in rural Wisconsin. The case, intimately connected to an upheaval in an alternate universe called The Territories, leads Jack and an unlikely band of compatriots to Black House. This house, hidden deep in the woods, is the portal to The Territories, and its radiating evil contrasts with the safety and warmth of the town's homes. Black House also joins the town's petty sins to the mythic evil of The Territories, and the novel's real power stems from such connections; beneath the cheerful veneer of middle-class life in Wisconsin lie distortions and nightmares that haunt even the most normal of its citizens. Like much of King and Straub's previous work, this novel contains innocent, sorrowing children, adults in search of redemption and a cast of sharply drawn townspeople. The measured pace of the prose and the authors' careful descriptions of the characters' interior lives make this as much a novel about the fragility of happiness and normality in middle-class communities as a novel about monsters, alternate worlds and madmen.
Today's literature is plagued by sequelitis; plagued because many of the offspring are abominations. But here's a marvelous exception. Seventeen years after King and Straub's first collaboration, The Talisman, comes an immensely satisfying follow-up, a brilliant and challenging dark fantasy that fans of both authors are going to love. Page by page, the novel reads as equal parts King and Straub, with the Maine master's exuberance and penchant for excess restrained by Straub's generally more elegant (though no more potent) approach. But the book, far more than its predecessor, is set explicitly in the King universe, with particular ties to the Dark Tower series. Its primary hero is The Talisman's Jack Sawyer, now retired from the LAPD and living with no memory of his otherwordly Talisman exploits, alone in French Landing, Wisconsin a town surveyed by the authors in an unusual third-person plural narration that buoys the book throughout. Terror stalks French Landing in the form of the Fisherman, who's been snatching, killing and eating the town's children. We know that the Fisherman is a resident of the town's elderly care facility, but Jack doesn't; when yet another child, Ty Marshall, is taken, Jack enters the hunt for the killer and the boy. He's joined by an array of locals, notably a gang of philosopher bikers and blind Henry Leyden, a 50-something cool cat whom every reader will adore. Jack is going to need all their help, and more, because The Fisherman is controlled by a malignant entity from End-World, where the Crimson King aims to unravel the fabric of all the universes. It's to blighted End-World, via the portal of the Black House a creepy local house painted black that Jack andothers travel to rescue Ty, in the novel's frantic conclusion. The book abounds with literary allusions, many to the King-verse, and readers not familiar with King's work and particularly with The Talisman may feel disoriented, especially at first. But there's so much here to revel in, from expertly excuted sequences of terror, awe or passion the novel is a deep reservoir of genuine emotion to some of the most wonderful characters to spring from a page in years, to a story whose energy is so high and craft so accomplished that most readers will wish it ran twice its great length. What is probably the most anticipated novel of the year turns out to be its most memorable to date, a high point in both the King and Straub canons. This will be a monster bestseller, and deservedly so. 2 million first printing. (One-day laydown Sept. 15) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Coauthors King and Straub, together again (The Talisman), take a Wisconsin Death Trip into parallel universes. The Fisherman, who copycats long-dead serial killer Albert Fish, has been chopping up little kids in French Landing, Wisconsin, and sending letters to the children's parents identical to those Fish sent parents 67 years ago-letters never made public, so how does The Fisherman do this? The local police chief asks for help from Jack Sawyer (hero of The Talisman), a Los Angeles homicide detective now in retirement. As a child, Jack flipped into the Territories, the parallel world in The Talisman, but has since forgotten his trip. What about the all-black Black House in the woods? Well, only Charles Burnside (Alzheimer's) and Tinky Winky Judy Marshall (just plain crazy) know the Black House is the doorway to Abbalah, the entrance to hell-and Judy's son Tyler is apparently the killer's fourth victim. Jack's new buddy, blind Henry Leyden, a radio deejay with four discrete identities no one knows are his, can't talk Jack into taking the case. But when little Irma Freneau's gnawed foot arrives in a shoebox on Jack's welcome mat, Jack flips and lands in the Territories. The Territories confer a sacred magic and, in Jack's case, absolute luck that lets him win his every bet or endeavor. Tyler, it happens, is telekinetic, and has been abducted by the Crimson King. All universes are held in place by the Dark Tower, the great interdimensional axle the Crimson King wants to destroy. Jack must save Tyler from the furnace-lands below Black House-and here the novel strives for depth, though interest dwindles. Those not knowing King's Dark Tower series or The Talisman will follow all this easily enough. Many admiring King's recent, subtler work, though, may find these blood-spattered pages a step backward into dreamslash & gutspill.
From the Publisher
“Intelligent…Suspenseful”—Wall Street Journal
“Overflows with dark wit…”—New York Times Book Review
“Two master craftsmen, each at the top of his game”—Washington Post
Read an Excerpt
Part 1: Welcome to Coulee Country
Right here and now, as an old friend used to say, we are in the fluid present, where clear-sightedness never guarantees perfect vision. Here: about two hundred feet, the height of a gliding eagle, above Wisconsin's far western edge, where the vagaries of the Mississippi River declare a natural border. Now: an early Friday morning in mid-July a few years into both a new century and a new millennium, their wayward courses so hidden that a blind man has a better chance of seeing what lies ahead than you or I. Right here and now, the hour is just past six a.m., and the sun stands low in the cloudless eastern sky, a fat, confident yellow-white ball advancing as ever for the first time toward the future and leaving in its wake the steadily accumulating past, which darkens as it recedes, making blind men of us all.
Below, the early sun touches the river's wide, soft ripples with molten highlights. Sunlight glints from the tracks of the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad running between the riverbank and the backs of the shabby two-story houses along County Road Oo, known as Nailhouse Row, the lowest point of the comfortable-looking little town extending uphill and eastward beneath us. At this moment in the Coulee Country, life seems to be holding its breath. The motionless air around us carries such remarkable purity and sweetness that you might imagine a man could smell a radish pulled out of the ground a mile away.
Moving toward the sun, we glide away from the river and over the shining tracks, the backyards and roofs of Nailhouse Row, then a line of Harley- Davidson motorcycles tilted on their kickstands. These unprepossessing little houses were built, early in the century recently vanished, for the metal pourers, mold makers, and crate men employed by the Pederson Nail factory. On the grounds that working stiffs would be unlikely to complain about the flaws in their subsidized accommodations, they were constructed as cheaply as possible. (Pederson Nail, which had suffered multiple hemorrhages during the fifties, finally bled to death in 1963.) The waiting Harleys suggest that the factory hands have been replaced by a motorcycle gang. The uniformly ferocious appearance of the Harleys' owners, wild-haired, bushy-bearded, swag-bellied men sporting earrings, black leather jackets, and less than the full complement of teeth, would seem to support this assumption. Like most assumptions, this one embodies an uneasy half-truth.
The current residents of Nailhouse Row, whom suspicious locals dubbed the Thunder Five soon after they took over the houses along the river, cannot so easily be categorized. They have skilled jobs in the Kingsland Brewing Company, located just out of town to the south and one block east of the Mississippi. If we look to our right, we can see "the world's largest six-pack," storage tanks painted over with gigantic Kingsland Old-Time Lager labels. The men who live on Nailhouse Row met one another on the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois, where all but one were undergraduates majoring in English or philosophy. (The exception was a resident in surgery at the UI-UC university hospital.) They get an ironic pleasure from being called the Thunder Five: the name strikes them as sweetly cartoonish. What they call themselves is "the Hegelian Scum." These gentlemen form an interesting crew, and we will make their acquaintance later on. For now, we have time only to note the hand-painted posters taped to the fronts of several houses, two lamp poles, and a couple of abandoned buildings. The posters say: fisherman, you better pray to your stinking god we don't catch you first! remember amy!
From Nailhouse Row, Chase Street runs steeply uphill between listing buildings with worn, unpainted facades the color of fog: the old Nelson Hotel, where a few impoverished residents lie sleeping, a blank-faced tavern, a tired shoe store displaying Red Wing workboots behind its filmy picture window, a few other dim buildings that bear no indication of their function and seem oddly dreamlike and vaporous. These structures have the air of failed resurrections, of having been rescued from the dark westward territory although they were still dead. In a way, that is precisely what happened to them. An ocher horizontal stripe, ten feet above the sidewalk on the facade of the Nelson Hotel and two feet from the rising ground on the opposed, ashen faces of the last two buildings, represents the high-water mark left behind by the flood of 1965, when the Mississippi rolled over its banks, drowned the railroad tracks and Nailhouse Row, and mounted nearly to the top of Chase Street.
Where Chase rises above the flood line and levels out, it widens and undergoes a transformation into the main street of French Landing, the town beneath us. The Agincourt Theater, the Taproom Bar & Grille, the First Farmer State Bank, the Samuel Stutz Photography Studio (which does a steady business in graduation photos, wedding pictures, and children's portraits) and shops, not the ghostly relics of shops, line its blunt sidewalks: Benton's Rexall drugstore, Reliable Hardware, Saturday Night Video, Regal Clothing, Schmitt's Allsorts Emporium, stores selling electronic equipment, magazines and greeting cards, toys, and athletic clothing featuring the logos of the Brewers, the Twins, the Packers, the Vikings, and the University of Wisconsin. After a few blocks, the name of the street changes to Lyall Road, and the buildings separate and shrink into one-story wooden structures fronted with signs advertising insurance offices and travel agencies; after that, the street becomes a highway that glides eastward past a 7-Eleven, the Reinhold T. Grauerhammer VFW Hall, a big farm-implement dealership known locally as Goltz's, and into a landscape of flat, unbroken fields. If we rise another hundred feet into the immaculate air and scan what lies beneath and ahead, we see kettle moraines, coulees, blunted hills furry with pines, loam-rich valleys invisible from ground level until you have come upon them, meandering rivers, miles-long patchwork fields, and little towns-one of them, Centralia, no more than a scattering of buildings around the intersection of two narrow highways, 35 and 93.
Directly below us, French Landing looks as though it had been evacuated in the middle of the night. No one moves along the sidewalks or bends to insert a key into one of the locks of the shop fronts along Chase Street. The angled spaces before the shops are empty of the cars and pickup trucks that will begin to appear, first by ones and twos, then in a mannerly little stream, an hour or two later. No lights burn behind the windows in the commercial buildings or the unpretentious houses lining the surrounding streets. A block north of Chase on Sumner Street, four matching red-brick buildings of two stories each house, in west- east order, the French Landing Public Library; the offices of Patrick J. Skarda, M.D., the local general practitioner, and Bell & Holland, a two- man law firm now run by Garland Bell and Julius Holland, the sons of its founders; the Heartfield & Son Funderal Home, now owned by a vast, funereal empire centered in St. Louis; and the French Landing Post Office.
Separated from these by a wide driveway into a good-sized parking lot at the rear, the building at the end of the block, where Sumner intersects with Third Street, is also of red brick and two stories high but longer than its immediate neighbors. Unpainted iron bars block the rear second- floor windows, and two of the four vehicles in the parking lot are patrol cars with light bars across their tops and the letters flpd on their sides. The presence of police cars and barred windows seem incongruous in this rural fastness-what sort of crime can happen here? Nothing serious, surely; surely nothing worse than a little shoplifting, drunken driving, and an occasional bar fight.
As if in testimony to the peacefulness and regularity of small-town life, a red van with the words la riviere herald on its side panels drifts slowly down Third Street, pausing at nearly all of the mailbox stands for its driver to insert copies of the day's newspaper, wrapped in a blue plastic bag, into gray metal cylinders bearing the same words. When the van turns onto Sumner, where the buildings have mail slots instead of boxes, the route man simply throws the wrapped papers at the front doors. Blue parcels thwack against the doors of the police station, the funeral home, and the office buildings. The post office does not get a paper.....